Tuesday 21 September 2021

Selected Crônicas by Clarice Lispector

Selected Crônicas by Clarice Lispector is the book to open at random. On any page there's something that goes straight to the nub. She finds you out. Whatever has been happening in your own life, whatever stories you have lately heard, and paused over, Clarice will echo. It's a quality of attention. A modesty and persistence. A dailiness. 

Take note that I have said nothing about my emotional reaction: I spoke only of some of the thousands of things and people I keep an eye on. Nor does anyone pay me to do this job. I simply keep the world under observation. Is it hard work keeping an eye on the world? Most certainly.

Clarice weighs in. Reading as confirmation, sometimes that's what you need.  Like a quick chat about what you saw today. Picking elderberries. A brand-new tractor practises reversing and returning. A taxi-driver checking for break-ins. Clarice and I. 

You must be wondering why I keep an eye on the world. I was born with this mission. And I am responsible for everything in existence, even for those wars and crimes which cause so much physical and spiritual havoc. I am even responsible for this God Who is in a state of cosmic evolution towards greater perfection.

I too have been keeping an eye, and a pen, on the local world for the last couple of years. I don't feel responsible, but I'm having my say in the name of greater perfection. Not feeling responsible for at least some of the time is, I would argue, essential. Plus I cannot envisage at all this God Who.

Since childhood I have kept an eye on a swarm of ants: they crawl in Indian file, carrying a tiny particle of leaf which does not prevent them from pausing to chat whenever they meet another procession of ants coming from the opposite direction.

Is an ant responsible? Or does the ant, tiny as it is, embrace a world? Clarice Lispector is an open-minded commentator. But by writing anything at all about ants, she is taking a stance.

But I still have not found the person to whom I should report my findings. 

Saturday 18 September 2021

Report from a Parisian Paradise, Joseph Roth

Joseph Roth spent the last fourteen years of his life in France. Notes from a Parisian Paradise is the feuilleton of his travels around France, freed from the weight of his own country, his own history, he finds what he needs, he feels at home. The enthusiasm, the traveller's lungs, the writer's eyes, old dreams of white cities descending in flat terraces and citadels in a Roman hand, Avignon, Nîmes, St Baux, Tournon, all the way down to Marseille, which, at the time of his visit in 1925, had seven hundred ships in the harbour. If you find your childhood dreams you find your childhood, which up till then appeared not to have existed at all. 

After World War 1, the global conflagration to which he has contributed, the unhappy grandson must put his grandfather on his lap and tell him stories of how he wore the uniform and ravaged the land, and now he must leave. Hitler becomes Chancellor of Germany, and Joseph Roth leaves for France, looking for the sweet freedom of not seeming to be anything more than he is.

From that time forth I have never believed in getting on trains, timetable in hand. I don't believe it is in us to travel with the serenity of a tourist, equipped for anything. The timetables are wrong, and the books are misleading. All travel books are dictated by a stupid spirit that can't see that the world is continually changing.

These are peculiar travelling times. They all are. Joseph Roth is the endangered, enraptured traveller who will walk from one town to another and intuit his way in among its streets, talk to any clown or longshoreman, idle over every relic, read up the history, try not to confuse names and things.

That's why we don't understand the world, and why it doesn't understand us. On the other  side of the fence it's vacation time. Lovely, long summer vacation. People don't take me literally. What I leave unspoken is heard. My every word is not a confession. Every lie is not wicked and unconscionable. Every silence is not enigmatic. Everyone understands it. It's as though people don't question my punctuality, even though my watch is wrong. People don't make inferences about me from what's mine. No one controls my day. If I waste it, so what, it was mine to waste.

I have read several of Joseph Roth's novels. They are profound and sad and riveting. Such is the freedom of Roth's journalism in France, it is hard to realise that at the same time, between 1925 and 1939, he also wrote those novels. The White Cities of southern France were protecting him. The bistros of Paris. Children sailing their toy boats in stone pools were protecting him. For as long as they could.

Sunday 12 September 2021

The Finzi-Continis in a field near Coachford

We had sent off our appeal to the Board, to the current Inspector; the day was blue. It was a day for the field near Coachford, with sandwiches of amber beetroot and cheese, aubergine pickle, butter, mayonnaise, basil, coriander; with tomatoes, cucumber, a piece of fennel and the remains of yesterday's frittata.

To read, I took The Garden of the Finzi-Continis by Giorgio Bassani, for its tenderness, tennis parties, its moment in history, sense of loss, imminent or immanent in the magna domus, the House, and the garden, planted a couple of generations before, now ripe. Au vert paradis des amours enfantins. An old hunting dog called Jor lies in front of doorways. There are hot showers, telephones, and fruit water, iced for summer, warm for winter.

In the field near Coachford, a matted Border collie is padding about the shoreline, keeping half an eye out. I am in 1930s Ferrara. P is reading about the sensuousness of stones. The animate material of our world. Purple loosestrife at the water's edge. Ducks at sixes and sevens. east west, west east. An island of gulls. 

There is always a combustion engine in paradise. Today it was a pump across the water for an hour or so. Irrigating what? Later a birdscarer imitating shotgun fire. Protecting barley for cows for humans for milk and meat. The hum of rural empire. A slight wind from the east is enough to send us into the long grass. Grasshoppers use our knees as calling ground, chirping their knees together to call in a mate.  

People don't eat in the garden of the Finzi-Continis. They change their clothes. They play tennis. They reminisce about plums, and how later they preferred Lindt chocolate. The narrator and Micòl go on a pilgrimage round the garden. The scene revealed, inhabited. The action is all around, unspeakable. Meanwhile, the garden is respite, saviour, citadel. 

Micòl does not want to be kissed. The narrator has no idea why. She has no future. She prefers le verge le vivace et le bel aujourd'hui and even more the past, the dear, sweet, sainted past. She introduces him to trees, she speaks their dialect. 

"There they are, my seven old men," she might say. "look at their venerable beards!" Really—she would insist—didn't they seem, also to me, seven hermits of the Thebaid, seared by the sun and fasting? What elegance, what"holiness" in those trunks of theirs, dark, dry, curved, scaly? They looked like so many John the Baptists, honestly, nourished only by locusts. 

The narrator is excluded. The Finzi-Continis excluded themselves. Though they are both jews. Juden sind everywhere unerwünscht. Unless you have your own garden, your own black-green hole. And even then they are falling, settling in irrevocably at the edge of town. And even that, as the medics say, will not protect you. 

His father has always said the Finzi-Continis are in a world of their own. Micòl is not for him. The young men, nonetheless, spend a winter of evenings talking Fascism, Communism, il Duce, Hitler, Franco, war and history, history and war, novels and poetry. They talk indoors, among books they have read. 

Anne Boyer (Garments against Women) says literature is the preserve of the property-owning class: what it means to be well or happy in a society that demands and denies the conditions of wellness and happiness: the state of not writing, otherwise known as life.

Life, however, includes books. And loss. And trees. And crow bangers. Wellness is a dubious word.

My story with Micòl Finzi-Contini ends here. So it is just as well for this story to end too, now, for anything I might add would longer concern her, but, if anyone, only myself.

Already, at the beginning, I have told of her fate and her family's.

Giorgio Bassani begins his novel with the description of a tomb. It stood out. It was meant to. A real horror, his mother said. A pastiche. Like Aïda. Ancient Egypt and Roman baroque, the Greeks at Knossos; all these cultures of the dead. He ends his story with the unburied death of his past, like Palinurus in Virgil, unburied on a foreign shore. 

Wednesday 8 September 2021

Electronic Civil Disobedience

Mid-afternoon, after picking blackberries—the ripe the soft, the hard, the unwilling, a few more pounds for wine, trip up in advance, these paths are getting overgrown—I read a couple of sentences of Electronic Civil Disobedience from the Critical Art Ensemble (1996). The book fell open on a paragraph about people buying VCRs, not knowing how to use them and feeling they'd bought an expensive clock that only ever said 12:00.

Cheerful tech naivete and derision from twenty-five years earlier. Strangely uplifting. 

By evening the blackberries were crushed, mashed, covered in water, en route in a bucket in the kitchen. 

Our current woe, twenty-five years later, is that babes and sucklings know how to use everything they buy or that is bought for them. Nearly all of them tell the time.  

Sunday 5 September 2021

What are you reading?

What are you reading?

D had his books on display when we went to visit. His reading schedule is exacting: two John Pilger, one Irish novel, an Italian novel for translation, maybe, and his mother's copy of Arabian Nights, mysteriously broken into phrases with a biro for the first twenty pages. I can't remember which book he read with first or second coffee, or tea, or breakfast or alongside a nap in the afternoon, as well as before going to sleep at night, but I appreciate the timetable, the need to calibrate each day with books.

On the strength of Brian Dillon's piece on Claire-Louise Bennett in Supposing a Sentence, I bought Pond, and took it to Castle Island but didn't open it. This was not the right place. The right place hasn't yet showed itself. In a waiting room, perhaps. 

The penultimate sentence Brian Dillon chooses, which I read last night, is by Anne Carson. Anne Carson is proof against nearly everything. I have had Autobiography of Red on the go all summer, to be taken up at any moment when a fine, sharp instrument of language is needed to remind me what matters.